Galaxy S4 Zoom.

Let’s call the ‘Zoom’ what it really is -- a Galaxy Camera Mini

This morning Samsung announced a phone with a camera strapped to the back of it. The Galaxy S4 Zoom, as it’s called, combines the guts of a Galaxy S4 Mini with the body of a point-and-shoot camera, complete with 16-megapixel sensor and 10X optical zoom lens. The main benefit, besides the high megapixel count, is that you’ll be able to take zoomed-in photos that don’t look like crap. That's because you’ll no longer be relying on the software-based digital zoom used by regular phone cameras.

But why is Samsung stitching a gigantic, hulking camera assembly to the back of a phone? And how does the Zoom relate to the company’s other Android-powered imaging device, the Galaxy Camera? Let’s take a closer look.

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The easy argument to make is that combining a camera and a smartphone in this way is completely insane. But if you consider the Galaxy S4 Zoom as a mid-range successor to the Galaxy Camera -- Samsung’s Android-powered point-and-shoot -- things start to make more sense. We’ve long said that in order to achieve mass market success, the Galaxy Camera line needs to split in two. At the high end, consumers dropping serious money on a dedicated camera demand better optics, sensors and performance than the current Galaxy Camera can deliver. At the mid-level, a casual camera needs to be cheaper and more pocketable than the Galaxy Camera ever was. The Galaxy S4 Zoom is that mid-level Android camera -- smaller than the Galaxy Camera, hopefully cheaper, and more accessible when sold at subsidized prices through carriers. And why not make it a phone, too -- after all, many of Samsung’s tablets, including the Galaxy Note 8, can be used to make calls.

S4 ZoomThe other point to consider is that 2013 is the year of camera-centric smartphones, and Samsung isn’t the only manufacturer pushing the envelope when it comes to mobile imaging. Nokia’s reportedly got its upcoming EOS device, while Sony’s said to be working on the “Honami,” with a 20-megapixel sensor and Cyber-shot optics. Both devices will surely sacrifice sacrifice thinness and sleekness in the name of better photography, just as the Zoom does. We’re entering a new age of cameraphones, and Samsung needs to be part of that. The Galaxy line is all about having a finger in every pie -- pick a class of product, a screen size and a price point and Samsung has a device to match.

The question of whether the S4 Zoom specifically makes sense as a phone is more difficult to answer. You might ask what kind of consumer wants to carry around a bulgy smartphone with an optical zoom lens -- but the same was said of the original 5.3-inch, stylus-toting Galaxy Note when it arrived, and that line has proved massively successful for Samsung.

Granted, there are individual specs that seem out of place on an imaging-centric gadget -- like 5GB available storage and a measly qHD (950x540, 0.5MP) display on a device that shoots 16MP photos. Those two in particular make it look like the Zoom was cobbled together from whatever spare Galaxy S4 Mini parts Samsung had lying around. And internal hardware isn’t the only thing the Zoom shares with the Mini -- both are piggybacking on the high-end Galaxy S4 brand when in reality they’re mid-range hangers-on. As a branding decision it makes perfect sense -- the manufacturer is taking advantage of the Galaxy S4 halo effect -- but consumers may end up being misled. Essentially, what you’re getting in the Galaxy S4 Zoom is a Galaxy Camera Mini. (AnandTech’s Brian Klug tweets that in terms of optics, the Zoom is actually a slight downgrade from the Galaxy Camera.)

To conclude, our greatest hope for the Galaxy S4 Zoom is that it liberates Samsung to produce a really high-end successor to the Galaxy Camera, a device worthy of having the word “Camera” in its name. The S4 Zoom has the mainstream targeted, but there’s an untapped market of professional users who want the benefits of an Android-powered smart camera without having to skimp on image quality. And if Samsung is the first manufacturer to meet these needs, it could extend its Android dominance into yet another class of product.

S4 Zoom